The call by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) for the voluntary withdrawal of certain colourings, and its recommendation that British ministers push for a total ban in the EU, surprised observers from the industry and the campaigning community. The debate over the link between food colourings and hyperactivity now switches to the European arena. Ben Cooper reports.

The last month has seen some interesting developments in the debate over the link between food colourings and hyperactivity in children, with the most recent announcement by the UK's Food Standards Agency (FSA) likely to take the debate to another level, not only in the UK but in Europe.

Last month's decision by the FSA to push for the voluntary withdrawal of certain food colourings by 2009 and European legislation to ban them entirely over a specified period surprised industry representatives and campaigners alike.

It represented a significant change from its initial response to research conducted at Southampton University, which revealed the strongest evidence to date of a link between certain colourings, in combination with the preservative sodium benzoate, and hyperactivity in children.

Much to the disappointment of campaigners, the FSA's initial response had been relatively moderate, recommending parents of children showing signs of hyperactivity or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) avoid foods containing these ingredients and reminding consumers that, by law, packaging must detail which additives food products contain. The FSA points out that it had always been its intention to make an initial response, and a further statement following its board meeting in April. However, the change was nevertheless a surprise to many.

Arguably the prime reason for surprise was the apparent divergence between the FSA's new recommendations and the response of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in March. The FSA had referred the Southampton research, which it had itself commissioned, to EFSA when it was published last September for review.

EFSA's view that the study did not warrant any change to the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) of the additives studied, had been welcomed by the British Soft Drinks Association (BSDA). However, the UK's soft drinks industry representative body is now bemused at the contrasting stance taken by the FSA.

Describing the "voluntary" measure by the FSA as "quasi-legislative", as it carries the weight of a regulatory body behind it, Liz Bastone, media manager at the BSDA, adds that the FSA's view seemed to be "at odds with EFSA's opinion".
As food industry advocates have also pointed out, the industry was making progress towards reformulating products containing the colourings in question on a voluntary basis, in response to changing consumer preferences.

"Given what we have already been doing for some time and what we're continuing to do in terms of reformulation, these proposals are unnecessary," Bastone continues. "We don't think more regulation is needed on this issue other the regulation that is already there, given EFSA's opinion that no change was needed to the ADI."

Another industry body, the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), believes that the FSA has bowed to pressure it has been put under since September. "Something has clearly happened," says Julian Hunt, director of communications at the FDF. "There is no new evidence on the table. We have had a number of stakeholder meetings, and at the last one I went to there was an acknowledgement around the table, NGOs included, that the industry had moved."

In Hunt's view, the FSA's original advice "seemed to be proportionate", but the agency had clearly been under "huge pressure" to ramp up its response. "Clearly after taking a proportionate response in September it did find itself under attack from single-issue pressure groups and from newspapers."

According to the BSDA, only around 7% of drinks marketed in the UK now contain the colourings identified in the Southampton study. "Generally, it's a very small proportion, and where possible we are committed to finding alternatives but there are technical challenges to that," Bastone states.

The announcement by the FSA, when compared with both with its initial response in September and EFSA's review, represents a considerable shift in the regulatory environment for UK soft drinks companies. However, one possible saving grace may well be that the debate now shifts to Europe.

An FSA spokesperson stressed that the research had given no legal justification for advocating a unilateral national ban on these colourings, so it is suggesting that UK ministers push for such a measure at a European level. Campaigners are now forecasting debate within EU institutions and between member states about whether to implement such a ban.

In this context, the apparent divergence between the FSA and EFSA on the matter appears particularly pertinent. Interestingly, Jeanette Longfield of the pressure group Sustain is also bemused by the apparent difference between EFSA's view and that of the FSA, as "they are looking at the same evidence".

Longfield forecasts that there will be "battle joined" in the EU if UK ministers follow the FSA's advice and push for an EU ban. "I think EFSA should start the process of changing their policy on it," she says. "I really don't think they have a leg to stand on. If you look at the risk and benefit side of it, it's all risk and no benefit."

Meanwhile, the BSDA appears to be pinning its hopes on the EU not opting for legislation in this area. In this regard, the outcome of the full review of additives currently being conducted by EFSA will be critical. Bastone adds: "Any regulation has to be made at a European level and on a scientific basis so we will await the full EFSA review of additives." But industry advocates remain concerned that if EU leglislation is not forthcoming, the UK, with the quasi-regulatory move imposed by the FSA, would remain out of step with most other EU countries.